Etta James' Legacy: A Quick Look
With the death of Etta James today, we have lost one of the figures most commonly associated with classic soul music in American pop culture history. Indeed, she was one of the first women to make a living on something akin to what would later be labeled pop-soul in the early 1960s, when men such as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, and Jackie Wilson were dominating the genre with a mix of smoothly orchestrated originals and emphatic covers of pop standards. However, this was only one side of Etta's story. The R&B legend's career debut was derailed by a drug problem, and by the failure of "Roll with Me Henry," her first hit recorded on the West Coast's Modern Records, to compete with a copycat pop cover by Georgia Gibbs, a common practice at the time (1955). The Chess brothers, head of Chicago's Chess Records, saw great potential in her, though, and felt, when they signed her in 1960, that she would be a suitable replacement for an imprisoned Chuck Berry as their flagship crossover star, and were itching for their own pop star in the wake of failing to sign the Windy City's own Cooke and Wilson in the face of competition from RCA (which signed the former) and Decca-Brunswick (which got the latter).
In her first few years at Chess (ca. 1960-1963), James did not disappoint, either artistically or commercially. Her success owed itself to a three-pronged strategy that was most effective in the first twenty years or so after World War II, when rock 'n' roll and R&B were basically two sides of the same coin, both marketed mainly with singles but targeted at suburban white teenagers in the case of the former and primarily urban African-Americans in the case of the latter. While 1) building her case with R&B radio, Chess and James also 2) put out single-only uptempo and mid-tempo releases to be aimed at said radio and the Top 40 stations white teenagers listened to, and 3) recorded albums of standards with gospel touches to draw in those teenagers' parents. The singles were melodic but punchy, in the style of many early Midwestern R&B records and often written by the same team that had broken Wilson to pop audiences in the late 1950s, including the likes of Motown founder Berry Gordy and future Chess head producer Billy Davis (also going by Roquel Davis or Tyran Carlo). "All I Could Do Was Cry," "Seven-Day Fool," "Something's Got a Hold on Me," and "Two Sides (To Every Story)" are some of the highlights from this vein. Meanwhile, the albums, starting with 1961's At Last!, were put out on Chess's jazz label Argo (home to Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal) and became arguably better-known in the long run thanks to perennial favorites such as her hit renditions of "At Last" (a big band hit from 1942 that became her de facto signature song) and "Trust in Me." In the mid-1960s, however, the category of pop-soul or uptown soul essentially ceased to exist; radio was once again segmented as it had been before the Top 40 revolution, and Etta was almost too eclectic a talent to "pick a side," neither content to be putting out soul-jazz like Nancy Wilson or Nina Simone nor to become a mainstream R&B diva like labelmate Fontella Bass, of "Rescue Me" fame. Though she tried to adjust to smooth Chicago soul and gutbucket Southern material, neither suited her as well as the mix she started out with, and she spent the 1970s and 1980s, remaking herself as a kind of museum performer, touring with famed acts such as the Rolling Stones and recording more esoteric cover albums to celebrate her status as not only a singer, but a legacy. By the last few decades of her life, James had "at last" achieved a level of prominence commensurate to her often sorely underused talent, and so it is fitting that we celebrate in hindsight her greatest contribution: embodying better than any other female artist of her time a unique style of diversely American music that was part jazz, part blues, part pop, part country, part gospel, all genius.